Twin peaks: Tips for planning a double b’nai mitzvah

Having two b’nai mitzvah on the same day in the same service is common at my temple here in Los Angeles, and it comes with a unique set of challenges. I have seen my friends who have had children called to the bimah on such occasions cringe at the competition that can follow and the inevitable comparisons that take place.

But what do you do when both b’nai mitzvah are your children? That’s what happens when you are lucky enough to have twins.

My partner and I spent more than a dozen years learning, practicing and honing our skills to be parents who treated our children, Harrison and Juliette, as separate individuals. We put them in different classes at school, encouraged them to pursue unique hobbies, and we gave them equal but separate time with their doctors. Most important, we tried our hardest never to compare them to each other — we never even referred to them as “The Twins” (a phrase they hated).

They are completely different people and yet when the time came this past year to plan their b’nai mitzvah, the pressure of preparing one ceremony for the two of them made it easy at times to forget that. (And, even worse, it allowed us to fall into the age-old trap of “compare and despair”!) Think about all the distractions: Your mother is texting you lists upon lists, out-of-town guests are coming, bubbes are kvelling, the rabbi’s assistant is calling, tutors are rescheduling, caterers are emailing, the whole shtetl is giving mountains of unsolicited advice — and all twice as much as for a single bar or bat mitzvah!

So how do you stay centered and not compare? How do you keep both children on track and make a meaningful, unique experience for each?

Start at the beginning with their religious learning experience. My kids learn at different speeds and in different ways. One is more linear in thinking and the other more abstract and creative. Try scheduling separate times — not even back-to-back, when they might overhear one another while waiting — for them to meet with the Hebrew teacher or tutor so that their learning styles can be accommodated. 

Harrison wanted to be lifted on a chair during the horah, while Juliette declined; Juliette and Harrison were both on the dance floor at their party.

This will add more shlepping time to your week and may require extra help. However, it is important for the kids to have that one-on-one time, and make separate mistakes, so they can learn on their own and feel a sense of unique accomplishment.

Watch out for potential pitfalls related to the service as the learning process continues, and adjust course as necessary. It’s not uncommon, for example, for some children to read more verses from the Torah than others, as they are able. That’s fine — some kids are faster learners and have an easier time with languages or melodies. I found it important, though, to then give the other child an extra prayer or task in order to make it equal and avoid hurt feelings.

I allowed the children to go in totally separate directions when it came to their speeches  about their portion, which includes Moses at Mount Sinai and the golden calf. My daughter was more polished and had a more scholastic approach. My son, who enjoys video games and draws cartoons, was more comical. It was like “Downton Abbey” versus “South Park.” 

There are other little things you can do, too, outside of the service itself.

Invitations: To make sure the invitation reflected both kids’ flair and taste, I asked them to pick colors to incorporate into the invite. The result was one invitation that reflected each child’s style. Juliette and Harrison created their own list of friends to invite, and although some names overlapped, it gave them a sense of ownership of the event. You could also ask them to choose a preferred postage stamp when mailing the invites to friends. 

When in doubt … alternate: I kept a tally and alternated which child’s name went first for every element of the b’nai mitzvah. That included invitations to the morning service, evening party and Friday night dinner; the temple bulletin; video montage; cake; programs; kippot; and balloons.

Clothes: Take your children clothes shopping a few days apart. It may be more practical to go binge shopping in order to check off multiple items from your to-do list, but that makes it more likely you’d loose sight of the fact that this is a special moment. Also, you will be more present and can help your child make the right decision on attire that will feel comfortable, look good and reflect who they really are.

Party: I had Harrison and Juliette pick a favorite dessert item, hors d’oeuvre and separate song list for the DJ (it couldn’t have been more obvious — think Green Day versus Lil’ Mama). I even had my friends who are bakers create two different cakes: chocolate and salted caramel.

To individualize the event, have each child choose a favorite dessert for the party.

In the end, for us, everything worked out great. The morning services left me joyful. When the evening party was just beginning, I looked at my kids and couldn’t believe that these separate and unique young adults were the same ones who sang the Shema in unison while getting ready for bed after returning from Jewish summer camp so many years ago.

Then the moment was broken with a tap on my shoulder from my daughter, who informed me that “under no circumstances” would she be lifted on a chair, as is tradition, during the horah.

I started to sweat! What would people think? Could one child be held up and the other not? Was it bad luck? Would it look wrong? And most important: What would my mother say?

Then, a miracle: I took my own advice, turned to my daughter and said, “You know what? You and your brother are separate people. You don’t have to go up on the chair just because he does. Your brother can go on the chair, and you and I can watch. Moses didn’t go up on a chair — why should you?”

Tales from the crib: Jolie’s Jewish ob-gyn speaks

NICE, France (JTA)—Angelina Jolie brought her twins into the world on Shabbat.

That fact may have been overlooked last Saturday by the thousands of media outlets covering the birth, which took place at Lenval Hospital’s Santa Maria Clinic.

But the timing did not escape Dr. Michel Sussmann, Jolie’s Jewish obstetrician.

Sussmann, a former vice president of Nice’s Jewish community whose daughter lives in Israel, basked in the media spotlight after he delivered the world’s two most widely anticipated newborns, Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline, the children of actors Jolie and Brad Pitt.

“The delivery was very emotional and exceptional as Ms. Jolie is a superstar, but I think that it happened on Shabbat made it that much more moving,” Sussmann said during an exclusive interview with JTA at his office in one of this city’s most elegant Art Nouveau districts.

“It was not an easy operation—a second cesarean with twins is difficult—but it went perfectly and they are so cute.”

Sussman said the twins, each approximately 5 pounds at birth, are in ideal health.

The paparazzi and untold millions of people around the world still await a glimpse of the cuteness that Sussmann and only a handful of others have seen.

With the first exclusive photographs of the twins reportedly worth as much as $16 million – People and OK! magazine are rumored to be the top bidders—the babies are being as closely guarded as the identity of the Mossad’s top secret agent. Jolie and Pitt have said they will donate the photos’ proceeds to charity.

Sussmann, 56, became the obstetrician for Jolie several months ago, a secret he kept until Jolie entered the Nice clinic June 30.

Though the movie star’s twin births were exciting, Sussmann said it wasn’t the most momentous moment of his life.

That came a few years ago when Sussmann took a call from Israeli-American violinist virtuoso Itzhak Perlman about Sussmann’s son Arnaud, 23, a violinist who recently graduated from the Juilliard School in New York.

Perlman told Sussmann, “I want your son to come study with me.”

Sussmann’s daughter Laura, 27, also lives far from the doctor and his wife, Juliette, a Moroccan Jew who also is a physician.

Laura made aliyah after enduring daily anti-Semitic diatribes during the height of the second intifada, when she was attending school in Paris, Sussmann said. She now lives in Tel Aviv and works in high-tech. His daughter Clara is a student at Columbia University.

Sussmann, who lives in Nice, says he has encountered no anti-Semitism in the Nice area, which is home to some 30,000 Jews.

“Far from it—most patients ask for Jewish doctors,” he said half-jokingly.

Sussmann told JTA that Jolie chose him because she had a friend who had been his patient. The Jolie-Pitt clan, including four other children aged 4 to 6, is living in a 35-room chateau in Provence.

This was Jolie’s second cesarean and she was carrying twins, so Sussmann—a very careful man, according to colleagues—requested that she come to the hospital and go on bed rest.

The energetic “Tomb Raider” actress and humanitarian had admitted openly that she found it difficult to resist horsing around with her brood even in the late stages of pregnancy.

Once his identity was known, Sussmann became the target of a Hollywood press inquisition: Why was Jolie in the hospital more than a month before her assumed due date? What does she eat? Do she and Brad really have fun together? And most importantly, when will she give birth?

Sussmann never broke patient-doctor confidentiality, taking the pressure in stride.

The Jolie-Pitt security team, which cost the power couple millions of dollars per month, also didn’t faze him. Sussman recalled Russian patients with a bodyguard retinue of as many as 19; a mere two guards kept intruders from bothering Jolie.

“Jolie and Pitt were always laughing and having a good time together, even during the birth operation,” he said.

Before the delivery Alain Treisser, the head of the maternity unit at the prestigious Prince Grace Hospital, told Touch Weekly magazine, “I think Sussmann will be great for the job because he is tough and has strong nerves.”

Like several doctors in the south of France, all of whom seem to know each other, Treisser is Jewish. So are several colleagues at the Santa Maria Clinic.

Though they are not regular synagogue goers, Sussmann said he and and his wife study Jewish thought once a month with an Orthodox rabbi. They’re also committed to supporting Israel.

Some other interesting Jolie Jewish connections: Michael Latz, the mayor of Correns, the town of 800 where Jolie and Pitt reside, is Jewish—possibly the only Jewish mayor in all of Provence. Latz is also expected be Pitt’s business partner, since his estate and the Pitt-Jolie vineyard, Miraval, cooperate in the production of organic wine.

Jolie’s father, the actor Jon Voight, is a major supporter of Chabad. On a visit to Israel two months ago, Voight met with terrorism victims in Sderot and expressed his opposition to negotiations with the Palestinians.

Sussmann said he never discussed his religion—or any other personal matters – with Jolie.

“I am her doctor; I don’t want to be her friend,” he said. “We had an excellent rapport. She is so, so nice and never complained about anything. There are negative things sometimes written about her on the Internet, but don’t believe them.”

Some of Sussmann’s colleagues, rather than expressing enthusiasm for Jolie’s choice of doctor, privately questioned the pick. In off-the-record interviews with JTA, several expressed disappointment that they had not been chosen.

Sussmann says he isn’t surprised.

“There is the French problem of envy,” he said, “and it may be one reason why my three children live abroad.”

Envy notwithstanding, Sussmann says he is delighted to have played a role in what many are calling the celebrity birth of the decade.


In Parshat Toldot, Jacob and Esau are born. Even though they are twins, they are opposites: Jacob is the quiet, studious type, while Esau is a hunter who loves to be out in the world. The world used to think of Jews as being just quiet and studious, but when Israel became a state the Jews there developed one of the strongest armies in the world.

Don’t let yourself be given a label – you can be an American, a Jew, an intellectual and a fighter, all at the same time.

There are many American Jews who became war heroes, too, don’t forget to honor them this Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

Write a story, song or poem about: My Happiest Jewish Memory. Send your entry by Dec. 31, to Jews for Judaism, 9911 Pico Blvd., No. 1240, Los Angeles, CA 90035. Go to for an entry form.

Mail your cartoons, drawings, puzzles, etc. to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010. E-mail your written answers to our contests, or your jokes, riddles, poems, etc., to Make sure you write your name and address in your e-mail. See you next time!

Twin Triathletes Go for the Gold

The U.S. may have the Hamm brothers, but Israel has the Alterman brothers. Like their American counterparts, these 24-year-old twins have their eyes on Olympic gold.

Ran and Dan Alterman are Israel’s reigning triathlon champions. For the past four years, they have dominated the sport in their native land. Now, they look to bring their success to the international arena.

To qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Altermans must compete in six races abroad annually. On Sept. 12, they will bring their speed and power to the Los Angeles Triathlon.

“It’s very exciting to come to Los Angeles and represent Israel in the race. And to know that people here are so proud of Israel that they wanted to help us make the trip, that’s just great,” said Ran Alterman, who along with his brother, had his trip to Los Angeles sponsored by Factor’s Deli owner Marvin Markowitz, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles. The brothers, who were born in Tel Aviv and grew up in Netanya and Even Yehuda, began competing in triathlons at 13. A decade later, the brothers have a healthy competition going between themselves.

“Racing against Ran is like racing against myself. We have the same training schedule, diet and ability, so to beat him is to better my own performance,” said Dan Alterman, who as the Israel Triathlon Association’s youth chairman, helps run camps, clinics and a boarding high school for young triathletes in training.

When it comes to major races, the Altermans run against each other but also pull for each other.

“It’s most important for the family to come in first and second. As to which of us comes in first, it depends on the day,” said Ran Alterman, who, with his brother, is enrolled at the college of management at Rishon LeZion.

While both Altermans served in the Israeli army, they believe it’s through their sport that they contribute most to their country.

“There will always be good Israeli soldiers, but there aren’t many great Israeli sportsmen,” Ran Alterman said. “We’ve been given the chance to travel the world, talk to people and show them that Israel is about more than war, and that Israelis are strong.”

The Los Angeles Triathlon will be held on Sunday, Sept.
12. For more information, go to

Twins Bring Hope to Paralyzed Couple

Shmuel and Rivkah Klein have all the hassles of being new parents. Their twins don’t sleep through the night, and with all the feedings, baths and diaper changes, they have difficulty finding time for themselves.

But the Kleins have an added challenge: They are both paralyzed, and they need to care for 8-week-olds Yosef Netanel and Yaakov Aryeh from the confines of their wheelchairs.

"Years ago, when I was growing up, I wondered how I would be as a mother," said Rivkah Klein, 27, who became paralyzed from the hips down after she contracted polio as a child. "But once my sister got married and had children, I became the second mother to them, and I was changing diapers and helping feed them. Then I realized that I am capable of doing anything another mother can do; I just do it from a sitting position instead of a standing one."

She met 41-year-old Shmuel, a graphic designer and tutor, on a blind date in 2001. He was able-bodied until he was 22 years old, when he broke his neck in an accident and became a quadriplegic. As a couple, they bonded over their shared disabilities, their commitment to religion (they are both Orthodox) and their desire to have children.

"When Shmuel and I were dating that was one topic we discussed," Rivkah Klein said. "We both wanted children, and it wasn’t a question of whether we would be able to, but rather finding the right way to have them."

After about a year of marriage, the Kleins started investigating fertility options.

"We covered all the bases, from homeopathic to in vitro," she said. "There are many options for people with paralysis. The key is to find what might work for you, and not to get discouraged."

The Kleins ended up conceiving the twins through in vitro fertilization, and the pregnancy was not without its challenges.

"Rivkah was all baby," Shmuel Klein said. "It got hard for her to cook and lift a pan, get into the van and climb into bed."

At 33 weeks, Rivkah Klein thought her water broke. She went to Cedars-Sinai, where she remained on bed rest while taking steroids to speed the maturing of her babies’ lungs.

The twins were born on July 1 via c-section; Rivkah was 35 weeks pregnant. Yosef, born first, weighed 5 pounds, Yaakov followed two minutes later and weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces. Although premature, both babies were born healthy.

At home in their Pico-Robertson apartment, the Kleins have a round-the-clock nurse, who helps with all the regular baby care tasks, as well as some extra ones. The Kleins have both slowed down the speed of their wheelchairs, so the babies would not feel a rushed and hectic environment in the house.

In lieu of Shmuel Klein holding the babies in his arms, the nurse holds them close to him so they can get used to his smell. That way, he can bond with his children.

"What Shmuel cannot give them physically he makes up 100 fold by what he can give them spiritually," said Reuven Fauman, who is making a documentary about the Kleins through his production company, Sightline Video, which he hopes will air on PBS. "When I was filming his daily routine I couldn’t stop weeping one day, when the attendant took off his leg brace, and his foot started to spasm uncontrollably, but Shmuel just looked at the twins and this look of pure joy came over his face. These parents, whose bodies have betrayed them, have these two children who are so perfect, and when you see the faith that [the Kleins] have in God, and their positive attitude, is just so inspiring."

Whether it will become more difficult for the Kleins once their twins are ambulatory remains to be seen, but both the Kleins and their doctors seem confident about the future.

"I think children who grow up with handicapped parents accept the fact that the parents are handicapped and to them it is normal and not a problem," said Dr. Harold Peart, the Klein’s obstetrician at Cedars-Sinai.

"The things that make me nervous are when I look into the future," Shmuel Klein said. "I want to go to shul with them on Shabbos, but I need someone to wheel me there. So who will be taking them? It is obviously doable, but until it is actualized I don’t know [how we will do it]. My biggest thing is that I want to know that we will be a family. I just want to know that we are a family unit sitting at a table, just the four of us eating dinner. That is really my goal."

A Miracle Worker

Maria Teresa and Maria de Jesus Quiej Alvarez are twins who were born conjoined at the cranium. Headline-makers since arriving at the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital in Westwood, the twins were separated in a nearly 23-hour surgery on Aug. 6.

“This single case has captured the global community in a unique way,” Israeli-born neurosurgeon Dr. Itzhak Fried said.

Fried is co-director of the Seizure Disorder Center at UCLA Medical Center and heads the Neurobiology of Human Memory Program in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Science. The Tel Aviv native came to America in 1972 to pursue his medical education. His Polish father trained as a Reform rabbi in 1930s Breslau — an outspoken Jew who stirred the pot in Nazi Germany.

“He was arrested by the Gestapo for Zionist activities,” Field said. “He got out of Germany just before 1939.”

Field, his wife and three children divide their time between living on the Westside and in Tel Aviv, where Field created an epilepsy program.

“My work is to set up things there that will improve medical technology in Israel,” said Field, whose passion is researching the central nervous system.

As of Aug. 26, both Marias remain in serious condition with stable vital signs. “There’s a very good likelihood” that they will lead normal, healthy lives, Field said.

“We’re dealing with very young patients. The brain has flexibility at this age,” he told The Journal. “They both tolerated the procedure reasonably well. The team has been cautiously optimistic from the start.”

Field is quick to credit his team of neurosurgeon and plastic surgeons, anesthesiologists and nurses. “The work is really a teamwork,” Field said. “It’s the experience of many people pulling together.”

To donate to the twins’ funds, contact Robyn Puntch at (310) 794-5143 or .